What to expect in Charlottesville: Lots of police, an anti-racist rally and few white supremacists

By: - August 7, 2018 6:01 am

The memorial to Heather Heyer, an anti-racist counterprotester who was killed in a car attack amid a white nationalist rally last year. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The city will be on lockdown. Hundreds of state police officers are pouring in from around Virginia. One source says the governor has already decided to declare a state of emergency.

But are any of the white supremacist groups that made Aug. 12 in Charlottesville such a disaster last year planning to return this weekend?

The short answer is no. So far, there are no publicly known plans — a major departure from last year, when the event was openly promoted by dozens of white supremacist groups and the potential for violence was known months in advance.

But that doesn’t mean Charlottesville is guaranteed a peaceful weekend.

Here’s what you should know going into the year anniversary of the deadly rally:

Racist groups that wanted to show strength are in shambles

Last year’s rally was organized by Charlottesville resident Jason Kessler to protest the city’s decision to pursue the removal of a Confederate statue from a downtown park.

But more than that, the organizers viewed it as an opportunity for a loose alliance of white nationalist, racist and far right groups that had grown online to engage in a real-world show of force.

In the fall out after the rally, which included dozens of arrests and jail sentences, those groups have fallen into disarray. Some have disbanded altogether and some reached legal agreements with the city not to return. Others now refuse to associate with Kessler.

“Anybody who wants to get assaulted and smeared as a violent Nazi is welcome to follow Jason Kessler,” said Christopher “The Crying Nazi” Cantwell, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports. “Personally I would far prefer to at least emerge from such a conflict with my teeth intact.”

Kessler, meanwhile, griped privately in online chats that he was getting virtually no support in his efforts to organize an anniversary rally. The communications were made public last month through court filings in one of several pending lawsuits he faces.

Last week, Kessler formally dropped a lawsuit seeking a permit to hold an anniversary rally in the city and has said he’s entirely focused on holding an event in D.C. near the White House instead.

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville that white supremacist protesters rallied around on Aug. 12 last year.
A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville that white supremacist protesters rallied around on Aug. 12 last year. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury).

Activists worried about racist flash-mobs, lone provocateurs and over-policing 

Though no one thinks that even in a worst-case scenario it will be on the scale of last year, Charlottesville residents and activists still see potential for conflict.

Scenarios they expressed concern about include:

● An unpublicized, flashmob-style white supremacist rally. It’s a tactic that racist groups have adopted as it’s become increasingly clear in the aftermath of last year that publicized events are drowned out and shut down by anti-racist activists. But if one were to occur, it would still likely be far smaller than the event that transpired last year.

“The largest number you could expect would be in the dozens,” said Goad Gatsby, an activist who monitors and trolls white supremacist groups online. He brought assault charges against Cantwell after Cantwell sprayed him and other counterprotesters with pepper spray on the evening of Aug. 11, when white supremacists carrying tiki torches marched onto UVA campus.

● Provocateurs hoping to pick fights and catch it on video in an effort to make a name for themselves. Gatsby and other activists say it’s a growing trend among aspiring far right celebrities hoping to find an audience.

● Clashes between anti-racist demonstrators and police. Virginia State Police have told local media they plan to have a “vast number” of troopers in town beginning Tuesday. Local police say they plan to have rapid response teams ready to intervene in any fights that break out.

The city is going on lockdown, closing a number of downtown streets, all public parks, pools and libraries for the weekend. UVA has said portions of campus will be closed to people who aren’t students, faculty or staff. A person with direct knowledge of the planning, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the state already has plans in place to declare a state of emergency, freeing up state funds to help cover the cost of responding.

State police referred questions to a city spokesman who did not return a phone message or email seeking comment Monday. Regarding plans to declare a state of emergency, the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Activists say they’re worried police will be overaggressive in attempt to make up for their widely-criticized inaction last year, and that counterprotesters will bear the brunt of it.

“I think the police will lock up more counterprotesters this year than white supremacists,” said Tanesha Hudson, a Charlottesville activist. “They have a point to prove. They’re going to make it look like they’re doing work this year because they neglected to do it last year.”

In community meetings, police have stressed that they’ll be responding to illegal behavior and advised that as long as no one breaks the law, there will be no arrests.

Last week, police began setting up surveillance cameras around downtown Charlottesville.
Last week, police began setting up surveillance cameras around downtown Charlottesville. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury).

Anti-racist groups plan rally at UVA

At this point, there’s only one rally planned for the weekend, organized by UVA Students United. It’s set for Saturday at 7 p.m. and will take place on campus on the North Plaza of the Rotunda, where white nationalists surrounded and attacked students and community members who had gathered around a statue of Thomas Jefferson.

Organizers say they want to reclaim a space that was dominated by torch-wielding racists last year and call for accountability from university administrators and police who failed to intervene when students were surrounded.

“No number of ‘healing vigils’ or ‘unity concerts’ can ever rectify what happened that night on UVA’s campus,” said one of the organizers, Ibby Han.

“We need real action from the administration. They must ban from grounds all identifiable white supremacists who participated in the torch attack, they must pay for all the medical bills of survivors of the attack and they must strongly condemn white supremacy and vow to combat it in all its forms.”

● Other community events planned for the week include: A panel discussion titled “Why we Protest” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

“When the ‘alt-right’ was metastasizing from 2015 to 2017, they intended for the August 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally to be their victory march. But the resistance they met from anti-racists in Charlottesville has been a model to other communities and has slowed their growth,” said Jalane Smith, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Charlottesville in a statement. “Local anti-racist activists will discuss why they don’t ‘just ignore’ white supremacists who gather in public spaces, and explain the importance of visible and vocal protest and direct action in thwarting the spread of fascism.”

● A panel discussion titled “Free Speech and Anti-Racism” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, also at the Jefferson School, will bring lawyers to discuss how “platitudes about ‘free speech’ are used to undermine anti-racist work.”

● “A Service for Repair” at First Presbyterian Church is planned for Saturday at 3 p.m. It will be led by women of color and aims to be “a service of remembrance for a community in need of relief,” according to organizers.

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville that white supremacist protesters rallied around on Aug. 12 last year.
A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville that white supremacist protesters rallied around on Aug. 12 last year. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury).

Activists urge focus on persistent, systemic racism

Activists in Charlottesville bristled last year when then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe responded to the events of Aug. 12 by telling white supremacists to “go home.”

They say their message as national and international attention returns to the city is that the city has yet to confront the racism that has long lurked within and that without such a reckoning, there can never be healing.

“Kessler didn’t create this problem. This problem was created long before you and I even existed,” said Hudson. “I don’t think people want to admit that Virginia is the heart of the Confederacy. I don’t think people want to admit that Virginia has always had issues with black and brown people.

“I’m not asking for white people to apologize. What I want you to do is stand up and speak out and dismantle the system created by your ancestors.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.